This week at Gettysburg College several hundred historians of all stripes have met to discuss the future of Civil War history. While the title may be rather broad and even somewhat misleading, what’s happening is primarily (although not exclusively) a discussion about how academic historians and public historians (including the National Park Service) present the American Civil War. Many of the sessions have reflected the role of violence, death, and destruction in that conflict, even as down the road the old cyclorama building continues to disappear into dust and rubble. That may reflect the interests of one of the conference’s organizers, Peter Carmichael, who has expressed concern about the glorification of violence and the failure of battlefield sites to contemplate the ramifications of violence.
I confess that I was not quite ready for the turn the conference has taken, and, as a participant in the final panel that looks forward toward the future of Civil War history, I fear that my comments are now sadly out of alignment with the thrust of the conference, whatever their other merits. I think it safe to say that whatever I say, it will be somewhat different from what I wrote weeks earlier. That in itself offers a cautionary tale about predicting the future. Nevertheless, I thought it prudent to set forth here what I thought several weeks ago. We’ll see what I have to say at the closing session. Continue reading